For years, Richard Hathaway avoided eye exams because he didn’t have the money to pay for them.
“My glasses were 15 years old,” said Hathaway, who’s homeless and suffers from nearsightedness. “They were scratched up. It was hard to read.”
Hathaway, 60, finally found some relief from the squinting and frequent headaches when he learned about the Walt Michaelis Clinic at the Union Gospel Mission on East Trent Avenue.
Since 1985, the clinic has performed free eye exams on Thursdays for thousands of poor and uninsured people, and whenever possible its volunteer opticians sent patients home with the correct pair of recycled prescription glasses.
But the Washington Board of Optometry put a halt on the clinic’s eyeglasses distributions last year, citing a federal law that requires glasses to be dispensed only by prescription. After that, the clinic still offered free eye exams but had no legal way to give patients the glasses they needed.
That changed Thursday, when a new law went into effect making an exception for the clinic and other charitable organizations to distribute used glasses.
The law comes from a bill that passed the Legislature with unanimous support in March. Rep. Dean Takko, D-Longview, sponsored the measure, and Spokane Valley Republican Sen. Mike Padden worked to help it pass.
Padden paid a visit to the clinic Thursday morning. The staff thanked him for his efforts, and Padden in turn expressed his respect for the clinic.
“What you guys do is so wonderful for the community, and you help so many people,” he said.
The clinic has stockpiled thousands of glasses, taking in an estimated 500 to 600 donations per year, said UGM spokesman Dave Wall. He projects that at least 300 people will visit the clinic for an exam in the next year.
“For adults that are low-income or who are homeless that are staying here, there’s no place to go get free eye care except here,” Wall said.
Hathaway said the new law is welcome news for him and others at the shelter.
“They’re just pleased as punch,” he said. “A lot of them have lost their glasses, they’re broken, and the schedule is filled up each week.”